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US, Swiss looking at top FIFA executives in corruption probe

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US, Swiss looking at top FIFA executives in corruption probe

ZURICH (AP) — The U.S. government launched an attack on what it called deep-seated and brazen corruption in soccer's global governing body Wednesday, pulling FIFA executives out of a luxury Swiss hotel to face racketeering charges and raiding regional offices in Miami.

Swiss officials also invaded FIFA headquarters, seizing records and computers to investigate whether the decisions to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar were rigged.

Scandals and rumors of corruption have dogged FIFA throughout the 17-year reign of its president, Sepp Blatter, but he was not named in either investigation. He is scheduled to stand Friday for re-election to a fifth, four-year term, and the organization said the vote will go ahead as planned, despite the turmoil.

FIFA also ruled out a revote of the World Cup bids won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

"We welcome the actions and the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football," Blatter said in a statement. The organization said it was cooperating fully with the investigation, and one American prosecutor said the charges were only the beginning.

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Some of the biggest names in soccer said they had complained for years about corruption in FIFA, which oversees the world's most popular sport and generates billions in revenue each year.

"I was treated like a crazy person," former soccer great Diego Maradona told radio station Radio La Red in Buenos Aires. "Now the FBI has told the truth."

Former Brazilian star Romario, an outspoken FIFA critic, said "someone had to eventually arrest them one day."

Authorities conducted early-morning raids in Zurich at FIFA headquarters and the five-star Baur au Lac Hotel. In Miami, FBI and IRS agents carried computers and boxes out of the headquarters of CONCACAF, the governing body of North and Central America and the Caribbean, whose past and current presidents were among 14 defendants named in a 47-count indictment filled with corruption charges that include wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering conspiracy.

Swiss police arrested seven soccer officials at the request of American prosecutors and threatened them with extradition to the U.S. Four other soccer and marketing officials and two corporate entities agreed to plead guilty, and prosecutors said they agreed to forfeit more than $150 million in illegal profits.

"Beginning in 1991, two generations of soccer officials ... used their positions of trust within their respective organizations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments," U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in New York. "They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament."

Richard Weber, head of the IRS Criminal Division, called the case "the World Cup of fraud."

Kelly T. Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the 161-page indictment detailed decades of "brazen corruption" and said prosecutors will probe the role of banks involved.

"The ultimate victim is soccer at large: it's the fans, it's the organization," Currie said. "The reason that these people were able to make so much money corruptly is just the love people have for the sport."

Two current FIFA vice presidents were among those arrested and indicted, Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. The others are Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas of Britain, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Jose Maria Marin of Brazil.

All seven are connected with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, South America's governing body, and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

FIFA suspended 11 people, including Webb and Figueredo, from all soccer-related activities.

Webb called himself a reformer when he was elected as CONCACAF president in 2012. Prosecutors alleged part of the bribe money directed to Webb was transferred to the account of a contractor building a swimming pool at Webb's home in Loganville, Georgia.

The Swiss justice ministry said six of the seven officials arrested oppose extradition to the United States. American authorities have 40 days to submit the formal extradition request.

Four of the men indicted are sports marketing executives and another works in broadcasting. Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president from Trinidad and Tobago, was among those indicted, and he turned himself in to police in Port-of-Spain after they issued an arrest warrant at the request of U.S. authorities.

The Justice Department cited bribes and kickbacks involving media rights deals involving World Cup qualifying matches in the Caribbean and Central America; the Copa America, South America's continental national team championship; the Copa Libertadores, the continent's club championship; plus the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Champions League.

Prosecutors said that when CONMEBOL reached agreements on Copa America deals worth $352.5 million with a new company named Datisa, that company agreed to pay $110 million in bribes to South American soccer officials.

A dozen schemes were detailed in the indictment, including $10 million in payments from a FIFA account that ultimately benefited Warner following his 2004 vote for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup. With the backing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa beat rival bids from Morocco and Egypt to host that tournament.

The Swiss prosecutors' office said the U.S. probe was separate from its investigation but that authorities were working together.

The votes to award the World Cups to Russia and Qatar have been surrounded in controversy and accusations of corruption.

The Swiss prosecutors' office said it seized "electronic data and documents" at FIFA's headquarters as part of the probe. Swiss police said they will question 10 FIFA executive committee members who took part in the World Cup votes in December 2010.

Qatar, a tiny Gulf nation with little soccer tradition, was criticized as a host because of its extreme summer heat. FIFA has since been forced to move the tournament to November-December instead of the usual June-July slot.

FIFA hired former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to investigate the 2018 and 2022 bid process. His findings were never fully released and both Russia and Qatar were confirmed as hosts. Garcia's full report was not released but was turned over to Swiss authorities in November.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, also a FIFA executive committee member, told The Associated Press: "We've got nothing to hide. We're prepared to show everything. We've always acted within the law."

Qatari soccer officials declined comment.

Hundreds of soccer officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA congress, where Blatter is widely expected to win re-election.

Nike, which is not a FIFA sponsor but pays to have the Brazilian and other countries' national teams wear its gear, said it is cooperating with the U.S. investigation.

European soccer's governing body said the election should be postponed and that it would consider boycotting the FIFA congress following the arrests. UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino said the corruption investigations "tarnish the image of football as a whole." In a sign of the loyalty that Blatter enjoys, however, the Asian Football Confederation opposed a delay and repeated its support for the 79-year-old president.

Blatter's only opponent in Friday's election, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, seized on the situation to push his candidacy.

"We cannot continue with the crisis in FIFA, a crisis that has been ongoing and is not just relevant to the events of today," he said in a statement. "FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations. ... Leadership that restores confidence in the hundreds of millions of football fans around the world."

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.